Legislators work to make Maryland Rye official state spirit

Legislators work to make Maryland Rye official state spirit

Sen. Stephen Hershey sits in the Senate session Thursday where his bill to make Maryland Rye the state spirit passed second reader. (Photo by Christine Zhu/Capital News Service)


ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The Baltimore Oriole. The Diamondback Terrapin. Lacrosse. The Blue Crab. Black-eyed Susans. Marylanders soon may be toasting those state symbols with a new one – Maryland Rye, the proposed state spirit.

While there are attempts most years to make something a state symbol, many do not pass. In 2002, former Democratic delegates David Rudolph and James Crouse introduced a bill that would make apple oatmeal cookies the state cookie. Both apples and cereal grass, which is used to make oatmeal, are large crops in Maryland, and the hope was to support and pay homage to the agricultural industry by making this the state cookie.

That bill did not pass, nor did the 2019 attempt by former Del. Wendell Beitzel, R-Garrett and Allegany, to make the long-tailed salamander the state amphibian.

But HB178 is bipartisan, with Del. Mike Griffith, R-Cecil and Harford, being one of 10 delegates sponsoring the bill; the other nine sponsors are House Democrats. Former Del. Kirill Reznik, D-Montgomery, originally introduced the bill, but retired on March 21 to join the Department of Human Services. In the Senate, Sen. Stephen Hershey, R-Kent, Queen Anne’s, Cecil, and Caroline, introduced SB497, the cross-filed version of the bill.

“Here’s a bill sure to lift your spirits,” said Sen. Ron Watson, D-Prince George’s, when he summarized the bill for second reader on the Senate floor Thursday.

The bill was introduced in both the House and the Senate in last year’s legislative session, but did not make it out of committee. Not only did it get out of committee this year, but the House version made the “crossover deadline,” meaning it passed one chamber and will receive consideration by the other.

“The bill was kind of inspired by what we’ve seen in Kentucky with the Bourbon Trail,” said Hershey. “We had some economic development numbers that were just really inspiring us to put the same type of designation on rye whiskey and then hopefully see if we can do something similar to the Bourbon Trail.”

Maryland has a long history with rye whiskey.

“Whiskey was one of the first styles of spirit, along with rum, that were produced here in the colonies in the new world,” said Jim Bauckman, director of communications at Grow & Fortify, which is a part of the Maryland Distillers Guild. “Maryland was home to an environment and a topography that lends itself very well to growth and production of rye as a grain and local farmers started using that rye grain as the basis for producing their spirits.”

Laws in Maryland have also recently changed to allow for more of a boom for distilleries.

“A few years ago, we started getting more distilleries in Maryland as well. We passed legislation that allowed them to have tours at their distilleries and to be able to sell a few bottles of the spirits that were produced there,” Hershey said. “Since then, we’ve seen this industry grow.”

All state symbols can be found in the Annotated Code of Maryland’s General Provisions Article, and include some very strange items. For example, although the state team sport is lacrosse, jousting is actually Maryland’s state sport. Since 1998, the state drink has been milk, and as of 2021, Maryland has 325 farms with about 42,000 cows producing the beverage.

While many of the state symbols have to do with animals (the state dog is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever; the state horse is a thoroughbred), there are still other more obscure symbols that lawmakers at some point believed represented the ideals of Maryland. Walking was declared the state exercise in 2008, making it the first state to have a designated physical activity; there is even a state dinosaur—the Astrodon johnstoni—which lived in Maryland between 95 to 130 million years ago during the Early Cretaceous Period.

Other Maryland state symbols have to do with color. The state gem is the Patuxent River Stone — found only in Maryland — sporting red and yellow colors that reflect the Maryland flag. Calicos, the state cat, are white, black and orange, similar to the Maryland state bird (the Oriole) and the Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly (the state insect).

The state spirit would have its roots in Maryland history.

“Rye whiskey was attributed to Maryland as a federally codified style of spirit,” said Bauckman. “We want to hold that tradition that grew up through the early 20th century, prior to prohibition where everybody knew, ‘Hey, the best whiskey to get is rye whiskey from Maryland,’ and we wanted to bring that product back home to Maryland.”

On Thursday, the Senate passed both SB497 and HB178 on the second reader and printed both for the third reader.

“The impact of Maryland Rye becoming a state spirit is going to be very widespread,” said Bauckman. “Maryland will have the opportunity to promote rye as our state spirit and promote the producers who are behind making really world-class rye. That in turn should draw enthusiasts and it should draw people here to visit and taste what we have going on.”

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